By Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will offer to help India cut reliance on Russian oil and defence equipment when he begins a two-day visit on Thursday that will test his diplomatic skills and provide brief respite from a row raging at home.
On his first trip to India as prime minister, Johnson will discuss strengthening security cooperation in meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his spokesperson said.
Western allies have urged India to speak out against the war in Ukraine. India, which imports Russian oil and is the world's biggest buyer of its weapons, abstained in a United Nations vote condemning the invasion and has not imposed sanctions on Moscow.
Modi has expressed concern over the killing of civilians.
U.S. President Joe Biden told Modi earlier this month that buying more oil from Russia was not in India's interest. Johnson will not lecture Modi on the matter, his spokesperson said.
Uday Bhaskar, a director at the Society For Policy Studies in New Delhi, said there was little Britain could do in practice to replace Russia as a strategic ally.
"(Britain) doesn't have enough oil or the right type of military equipment to sell," Bhaskar said.
Though India has grown closer to the West in recent years, it still depends on Russia for more than half its supply of weapons amid a Himalayan border standoff with China and perennial tensions with Pakistan.
Johnson will arrive in India with an eye still on matters in London, where he will miss a vote on whether he should be referred to a parliamentary investigation over claims he misled lawmakers about parties in Downing Street that broke his own coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
FREE TRADE TALKS
Johnson's trip begins in Modi's home state of Gujarat, where he will visit a new factory being opened by a British firm and announce investment and collaboration in science, health and technology.Britain said this would be the first time a British prime minister has visited the sprawling coastal state famed for its spirit of entrepreneurship and the ancestral home of about half the British-Indian population.
On Friday, Johnson will visit New Delhi for talks with Modi, including on a new defence partnership and a free trade agreement which the two countries began discussing in January.
Britain was India's third-largest trading partner at the start of this century, but slipped to 17th last year, India government figures show. India's biggest trading partners are the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates.
Johnson will announce new investment and export agreements by British and Indian businesses, in fields ranging from software engineering to pharmaceuticals, which his office said would total more than 1 billion pounds.
India's longstanding demand for easier access to British visas for students and skilled workers during any trade talks will also prove politically difficult for the British government.
($1 = 0.7689 pounds)
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Bernadette Baum)